OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Thousands of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic bloodshed trekked back across the Uzbek border to burnt-out homes on Tuesday, their future uncertain before a vote on how the country will be governed.
A quarter of the 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks who fled the violence earlier had streamed across the border into Uzbekistan. Reuters reporters on either side of the barbed-wire fence separating the Central Asian countries saw people weeping and hugging relatives on their return.
“We cried tears of blood, simply because we were born Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan,” said Altynai Badalova, 35, a teacher on her way home. “The Uzbek people stood as one to help us.”
Three days of killing began on June 10, when coordinated attacks by unidentified individuals in balaclavas quickly led to fierce fighting between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz, who comprise a roughly equal share of the population in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Mainly Uzbek households were attacked and many locals have said state troops, comprising mainly ethnic Kyrgyz soldiers, did little to protect them and in some cases took part in assaults.
The United States and Russia, which both operate military air bases in Kyrgyzstan, are concerned the unrest could spread to other parts of Central Asia, a former Soviet region lying on a major drug-trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan.
Uzbek military officials said about 5,000 refugees crossed back into Kyrgyzstan voluntarily on Tuesday. A Kyrgyz border guard estimated 4,000 crossed, plus a further 2,000 on Monday.
As Kyrgyzstan’s interim government prepares for a June 27 referendum on constitutional reform, many of those returning were unsure where to go. Some huddled at the border, sheltering from the blazing sun, as they decided on their next move.
“I don’t know how I can live side-by-side with the Kyrgyz, but this is my native land,” said 33-year-old housewife Minavar, an ethnic Uzbek, who declined to give her last name.
Others boarded mini-buses into the centre of Osh, the Kyrgyz city 10 km (6 miles) from the border that was the epicentre of the violence. The city was tense a day after security forces stormed ethnic Uzbek neighbourhoods to search for weapons.
Ethnic Uzbeks have blockaded themselves into parts of Osh, afraid of renewed violence. In one such suburb, Dekhkan Kishlak, locals said they had been beaten by security forces and their jewellery and money stolen during a two-hour raid on Monday.
Several women said armed men identifying themselves as security forces burst into the district, beat them with rifle butts and stole sacks of flour delivered as humanitarian aid.
“They told us that, if we are still here in 10 days, we will be hanged from the lampposts,” said Karima, 34, a mother of three who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals.
Just a few hundred Uzbeks remain in the suburb, where two days earlier more than 1,500 people had sought refuge in concrete stables and dog kennels. Many have returned to their homes or are living in Uzbek houses elsewhere in Osh.
Kyrgyz authorities said law enforcement officers had met “armed resistance” during security checks in another ethnic Uzbek settlement, Nariman, where large boulders lay across the road to keep out Kyrgyz forces.
One Uzbek man in central Osh, watching a group of returning refugees stepping off a mini-bus, whispered: “Why the hell are they coming back? Don’t they realise what awaits them here?”
United Nations Special Envoy Miroslav Jenca, visiting Osh, said he had been informed that thousands of ethnic Uzbeks were returning home. The U.N. refugee agency has set up an office at the city’s airport.
“There is still a lot of hatred, so it is an enormous challenge for the interim government and for local authorities to create conditions and show clearly that Uzbeks are welcome,” Jenca said.
He was overseeing the delivery of 40 tonnes of medicine from a truck to a hospital in central Osh, surrounded by charred houses and walls pockmarked by bullets.
While the official death toll from the clashes stands at 251, interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva has said 10 times as many people may have been killed in the violence.
The interim government, which swept to power after an April 7 revolt toppled the president, needs the referendum as a stepping stone towards presidential and parliamentary elections.
Otunbayeva, whose tiny, under-equipped army has struggled to bring order to the south, visited the region for a second day. She has rejected calls from some officials for the referendum to be postponed, saying any delays would risk a return to violence.
The 56-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said it will not send short-term observers to Kyrgyzstan for the referendum for security reasons.
But Badalova, one of the returning Uzbeks, said she would vote for change. “We worked before and we will work again, for our children. We will restore everything.”
Others were less sure of their future.
“We do not know what life holds in store,” Rafat Akhunova, a trader, said as she crossed back into Kyrgyzstan. “We have not had any rest for so long.”
Additional reporting by Shavkat Rakhmatullayev and Shamil Zhumatov in Yorkishlok, Uzbekistan, and Maria Golovnina in Bishkek, writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Noah Barkin and Mark Heinrich